Police in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi attacked schoolchildren protesting against the land grab of their playground by a property developer on Monday. Hundreds of pupils and protesters had tear gas canisters fired at them as they attempted to enter the disputed plot during their break.
The playground had been boarded up during recent extended school holidays caused by a strike at the Lang'ata School, a public school run by Nairobi council. Activists say the police, who were accompanied by dogs and in full riot gear, acted illegally on behalf of a senior member of government, who is thought to be one of the owners of a nearby hotel that annexed the land with a view to building a parking lot.
The police initially defended their actions, saying that since no notice was given to authorities the protest was illegal, and denied that they fired at the youngsters. Yet video and picture evidence taken by journalists at the scene disproved this and the officer in charge of the operation has now been suspended pending an investigation.
Brian Inganga, who filmed what happened, told VICE News that as the frequency of protests over land grabbing has increased, so too has the police response, though he was shocked at how the youngsters were targeted. He said police attacked the children - aged between six and 13 — as they entered the field together during their break, at around 10am. The police had been on site since early morning and were aware that the protest was due to take place through social media.
'No one's child deserves to have their playground grabbed by an unscrupulous, greedy, and callous leader just because they have the might that comes from using state muscle.'
Today, fury over how the police behaved has prompted Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta to condemn what happened as "deplorable" and to criticize his ministers for allowing the dispute to escalate to this stage. However, Kenyatta also hit out at school officials for allowing students to get involved and wants "all parties" to be held accountable. The Kenyan Law Society also promised to investigate, as has Kenya's police ombudsman.
Boniface Mwangi, an activist who was involved in yesterday's clashes, told VICE News that the children were holding leaves as a sign of peace when they were hit. In the chaos that ensued they were chased onto the nearby road and fired on as they attempted to enter the edge of their field, which has been grabbed by developers.
The distressed students were then treated back inside the school, as staff members attempted to douse them in water to mitigate the stinging eyes, tight chests, and intense headaches caused by the toxic gas.
At least 10 children were brought to hospital, Mwangi said. A police officer was also injured after being pelted with a stone, in actions condemned by the organizers.
Two of the protesters were arrested by police yesterday for "inciting" the violence and held overnight. They were released this morning on bail and have yet to be charged. The arrest of the protesters came as no surprise to Mwangi but he was alarmed at the level of brutality shown to the young targets.
"Yesterday was the first time in the history of this country that the Kenyan police teargassed little children — they have beaten up adults of course, but they had never beaten children. Land grabbing is a big issue across Kenya and there are many disputes over the ownership of land. There is a lot of land grabbing by political leaders and this is leading to conflict."
Monday's incidents are just the latest in a growing number of land disputes across Kenya, and other countries across Africa. As communities mobilize to protest their interests, there are widespread and bitter complaints that state police are being employed to protect the interests of private developers, against those who use the land.
Elizabeth Mpofu, a land activist with peasant farming rights group La Via Campesina, told VICE News what the police in Nairobi did yesterday is just the starkest example of what is happening across the continent.
"When we stand up against land grabbing and exploitation, this is the response we get from the government: brutality," said Mpofu. "The army and police simply beat up protesters when they defend their land against being grabbed by foreign or local big investors. This has to stop."
Little is known about the property developer behind yesterday's land grab, and there is mounting frustration about the lack of information. Activists are pretty clear that the police are acting to serve the personal gain of those inside the highest levels of government, and have been sharing their views fairly freely on social media using #OccupyPlayGround, despite the risks this could incur. Kavoi Maina, a Nairobi mother with young children around the same age as those injured yesterday said she was furious that the developer was being protected.
"No one's child deserves to have their playground grabbed by an unscrupulous, greedy, and callous leader just because they have the might that comes from using state muscle."
Her views were shared by several others who did not wish to be identified. Among the people who VICE News spoke to there is widespread belief that the developer is linked to the country's deputy president, but a lack of transparency over ownership of the company implicated means this claim is can be neither proved nor disproved, which all adds to the fury.
Though Mwangi welcomes the police enquiry, he wants the investigations to shed light on who is actually benefitting from the land grab, he told VICE News: "The developer is a politician in government. The president has spoken about it, but he did not say who did it. Everyone is saying it is a private developer, but no one is saying who it is. While we are so concerned about what the police did yesterday, we need to know, who was the driver of this? Who is the man who grabbed the land? Who is the man that the police are willing to injure children for?"
Follow Lara Whyte on Twitter: @larawhyte